I'm not sure what the hell got into this Houston Rockets squad, but whatever it is, I like it.
An article came out about a week or two ago about how the Rockets wanted to follow the "Denver model" with this year's team. It's safe to say the envy didn't last long. The Rockets beat Denver on the road, beat fellow starless darlings Portland on the road and now stand in fourth place in a tough Western Conference with a record of 16-11.
The season is in a stage where you can get away with saying it's still "early," but it's really not. The Rockets are nearly halfway through their schedule (the tenth toughest in the league, mind you). A month ago, we were wondering when the Rockets could be written off and when Tankapalooza 2012 could begin. Suddenly, the Rockets have put together a legitimate playoff resume with a team that isn't getting as much as usual from former consistency kings, Kevin Martin and Luis Scola.
There was a point back near the beginning of the season where I tried to defend this squad for what it was: unproven. The youngsters had taken off so quickly that we had forgotten they were still youngsters and had plenty of room to grow. They appear to be growing, and in doing so, they're saving the starters' hides with some fantastic bench play.
Chase Budinger's rollercoaster career has sent us to the Moon and back and we're still not sure if we like him, but he's stepped up. Patrick Patterson has bounced back from a rough start to prove his case as a potential starter. Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee have maintained solid performances throughout. Even Jordan Hill has slightly improved, especially on the defensive glass.
Ask yourself for a second: What's not to like about a team consisting of a young and explosive bench, a rookie starter and an ever-improving point guard (to the point where stardom appears closer than anyone could have imagined) in a point guard's league? It's almost as if Martin and Scola have become the throw-ins to the roster. Say what you want about their regressions: they're the best throw-ins one could ask for.
Don't forget about Marcus Morris or Donatas Motiejunas, either. They'll be around next year to stake a claim as rotation players.
With money to spend and plenty of cap space, it'd be a little crazy for anyone to wish anything but success for this squad at this time. So Houston regresses and falls back to Earth. Fine. Let's say that happens. At that point, I'll join Team Tanking. Maybe. But for now, there remains a chance to make the playoffs, and if that happens -- if Houston can make it with this team, and if the players can continue to grow -- not only will the Rockets have increased each player's trade value (*side effects of rooting for a Daryl Morey team*), they will have also vastly increased their value to potential free agents. Not to mention, Kevin "I Am A Hall Of Famer And You Will Enjoy My Enormous Personality" McHale will be a much better FA recruiter than Rick Adelman was.
I'll hop off my Defend the Castle campaign, but not before leaving you with this: It's difficult for me to want to break up a team that is A) Winning, and B) Doing so in such a team-oriented fashion. Go check Jason Friedman's Twitter feed (@RocketsJCF). Go see what players have been saying after games about how they're going to battle for each other as a family. It's one thing to actually think these things and feel a legitimate team chemistry, but it's another to feel the need to tell the media exactly how you feel about a group of players. These guys play for each other. They laugh in warmups, they shoot the shit and then the play their butts off without ever losing their cool. Despite the many lead changes in games, you'll notice Houston has been fiercely competitive in every single contest (except for a in few early birds during post-lockout ball with a new coach.) This team is dying to prove that they can win without clinging to hopes of Dwight or Deron.
So, let's enjoy where the Rockets stand for the time being. Let's enjoy how quickly they've come to embrace McHale as a coach. Let's foam at the mouth over the team-first approach. Let's soak in the stability of starting a legitimate seven-footer. And then, after that, let's hope it all continues. We know it may not go as planned. We know we'll be down at some points and back up at others. But let's hope this team proves everyone wrong and reminds us that the actual NBA season is worth plenty more attention than its draft.
(Link: Gasol Still On Rockets' Radar)